Mom: You should have come on this cruise. The weather is glorious.
Theo: Do you even understand how weird it is to look for dates together as a family? Confined to a boat? I would throw myself over the railing.
Mom: It seems to me that getting along with the family is a pretty important feature when choosing a boyfriend or girlfriend. Not that I’d know. You never introduce me to anyone.
Theo: I don’t have any girlfriends to introduce you to.
Mom: I think it’s more like you have too many.
I haven’t been able to take my eyes off Winter all night. I feel like I’m watching the Discovery Channel, studying the merging of two packs of hyenas or something. The chatter in the house doesn’t stop, neither does the laughter.
No one is trying to make her uncomfortable. They don’t need to. She does it all on her own.
She watches every movement so closely, and she listens hard, turning over every snippet of conversation in her head. And every time she catches me staring, she looks away so quickly that I’m sure she’s going to have a sore neck tomorrow.
“I think I’m going to head back.”
I saw her working up to this declaration. Fiddling with her fingers anxiously. Leaning forward a bit when there was a lull in the conversation. Her lips would pop open, but then conversation would surge back up and she’d visibly shrink back in her chair.
The remarkable contrasts of this woman, removed and bordering on insecure in one moment, cool and snippy the next. And to think she started off all fucking fiery and flying off the handle.
She must be exhausted.
“Are you okay to drive?” Summer asks, always doting on everyone.
Winter’s gaze darts out the window where snow is still falling.
“Yeah. I’m all good.”
My molars clamp down tightly. She’s not all good. She wasn’t two hours ago, and she won’t have magically become comfortable driving on snowy, dark roads just by eating dinner and having a single glass of wine.
“I can drive you. I’m sure we can get you your car tomorrow.”
She scoffs, rolling out the ice princess routine as she shimmies her shoulders and tips her nose up. “That is entirely unnecessary.”
I give her my best you’re full of shit, sweetheart look from where I’m sitting on the leather couch opposite her.
“Don’t give me that look.”
“What look?” I make my face suitably blank.
Her finger squiggles in the air at me as all eyes in the room volley between us. “That one that says you know better than me.”
“In this case, I might.”
Her lips purse, so damn prim. “I guarantee you don’t. I’m a doctor.”
“Oh? Did you take a special winter driving class at med school?”
“Did you at bull riding school?” she snipes with some venom, but I just want to laugh.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Bull riders don’t go to school. We’re lucky if we learn how to tie our shoes and brush our teeth.” I give her a flash of my pearly whites, not caring that everyone is watching us.
“I already know you can’t tie your shoes. The hygiene part doesn’t come as much of a surprise either, if I’m being honest.”
“Flattered you looked long enough to notice my boots weren’t tied. And I’d be happy to prove you wrong about my hygiene since you’re clearly very invested.”
Her eyes narrow, and I laugh. Try as she might, she can’t get under my skin because this is way too fun.
“It’s true. Rhett wears mostly pull-on boots,” Summer interjects with a slightly awkward laugh, clearly trying to cool the tension.
I wish she wouldn’t. I get off on watching Winter thaw.
Everyone laughs as Rhett exclaims, “Rude!”
Winter takes that opportunity to stand. She doles out an awkward hug and back pats to her sister while avoiding even turning her body in my direction. There are quiet whispers exchanged between the two women, and I feel a little tug at the sight.
I’ve come to love Summer like a sister, and I know from what Rhett has divulged that the distance between her and Winter pains her.
So, I tell myself that what I’m about to offer is for Summer, and not at all because there’s something undeniably intriguing about her sister.
“I’m going to leave too.”
“Already?” Rhett asks.
“Yeah, meet you at the gym tomorrow? Maybe Summer can make us cry?”
Rhett and Jasper laugh, because they know what I’m talking about from working out with her. Summer may be small and sweet, but put her in personal trainer mode and she becomes downright evil. I don’t think any of us have been in better shape than since we started working out at Hamilton Athletics.
“It’s not my fault you’re all so fragile,” she volleys, spinning to smirk at us. Yeah, I think she enjoys watching us struggle.
“That’s men for you,” Winter says tartly as she turns to leave without another word.
Her sister hits me with a pleading look. “Theo—”
I hold up a hand to stop her. “I’ll make sure she’s alright.”
Winter scoffs from down the hall, because of course she has superhuman hearing or something. And I just roll my eyes at Summer.
“Careful, that one’s got claws,” Cade offers right as Willa shoves a pointy elbow into his ribs.
I grin. “That’s okay. I like having my back scratched.”
“I’m not driving with you.”
Winter flies off the front steps into the storm, flakes swarming her like she’s living inside a snow globe.
“I don’t even want to talk to you.”
“Well then, stop,” I tell her with a chuckle as I come to stand at the top of the stairs.
Her mouth opens and then closes. “You are so annoying.”
“Is that a medical diagnosis?”
“I . . .” She looks away and I swear I see her lips twitch. “Good lord, you are unbelievable.”
I hit her with my best knowing smile. “I get that a lot.”
She barks out a harsh, dry laugh as her head tips to face the perfectly dark sky. Snow adorns her lashes when she turns her attention back to me. “You’re also confusing. What do you want from me?”
The tone of her voice is different now. It bleeds exhaustion. From where I’m standing, she looks small and tired, like she might laugh or cry but isn’t sure which.
I don’t even want to keep needling her. What I want to do is give her a hug and tell her everything will be okay. I sense she needs that comfort.
It’s what I’d do for my mom or my sister.
But I give her what she can handle, which is cold, hard facts. “I just want you to get back home safe.”
She responds with a laugh that borders on a sob and then peers back up at the navy sky. “Home.”
I lean against the porch railing and cross my arms over my chest, watching her. Giving her space, but also not wanting to leave her alone.
“I’m staying at the hotel in town. The Rosewood Inn.”
“Yeah?” I quirk my head. “Same.”
The look she gives me is disbelieving.
“Come on, Winter. I’m not a total dog. Give me some credit. What if I drive in front of you and you follow? That way, if there is any wildlife, I’ll hit it first.”
Her eyes roll, but her lips reiterate, “Follow?”
I shrug. “Yeah. And when you get into town, you’ll be fine. You can watch me walk away and never see me again.”
Now her lips do tip up, but it’s practiced. “That holds a certain appeal.”
“Watching me walk away? Busted you doing that earlier already.” I wink as I jog down the stairs and hit the button to unlock my truck.
“You are incorrigible.”
“Oooh! Incorrigible! Great word. Very Bridgerton. I could role-play the duke if that’s something you’re into.”
I tug her driver-side door open and gesture to usher her in, but she stops in her tracks. Finally looking amused. “You know Bridgerton?”
“Yes. They even taught me how to read at bull riding school.”
“You read Bridgerton?”
She’s so impressed by my ability to read that she still doesn’t move, so I leave the door open and carry on to my truck. I laugh as I haul myself up into the driver’s seat. “Stole them from my mom for teenaged spank bank fodder.” Her responding gasp makes me laugh harder and I call out, “Let’s go, Tink! We’re off to Neverland!” right as I slam my door.
Knowing that now she’ll follow me just so she can tell me off about comparing her to a Disney fairy again.
I go slow. Slower than necessary, but it eases the pressure in my chest to see her headlights behind me. She drives like she’s never seen snow before, and I’m worried she’ll hit the ditch. But at least I’ll be here to pull her out and call a tow truck. Better than sitting at Wishing Well Ranch thinking a woman who is far more terrified than she’d ever admit is out on the roads white-knuckling it by herself.
The drive takes twice as long as it should, and I let out a deep sigh when we hit the first stoplight in Chestnut Springs. The roads were ugly, and I swear I can feel her relief from twenty feet away.
When we pull up in front of the Rosewood Inn, I hop out and start to walk away like I promised her I would. I think I’ve needled her enough for one night. Yet I find myself somewhat disappointed at the idea of never seeing her again.
A good sparring partner is hard to find.
“Hey, Theo?” she calls, chin tucked deep into her coat to keep the snow out, warm honey hair shining under the flood of light from the streetlamp arched over her. “You uh . . .” Her arms cross over her body protectively and she drops my gaze awkwardly. “Thanks for that.”
I nod. “Of course. Anytime.”
“Anytime the roads are bad, I can just, what? Give you a ring and you’ll come running to the rescue?”
“Yeah. Sure. If you ever need help, you can give me a call.”
She looks momentarily stunned. “Why?”
I lift my shoulders in a shrug. “I don’t know. Why not?”
Her lips roll together as she contemplates for several seconds. “But you don’t even know me.”
“Don’t have to know a person to be nice to them.”
The woman seems genuinely confused. “Is this some stupid karma shit?”
“No, it’s entirely self-serving. I have this thing where if I’m shitty to someone, it eats me up inside. So, if I’m just nice, it makes me happy. Being negative is exhausting, ya know? And I don’t have time to nap.”
My head quirks. “Is it? You seem tired, Winter.”
“Try it then.”
“Doing something nice. Try it on for size. If you hate it, you can be mean to me again and I’ll let you.”
Her eyes roll, but I can see her biting at the inside of her cheeks like she’s mulling it over. “Okay,” she finally says on a deep exhale. “Theo, can I buy you a drink to thank you for helping me get back here safely?”
“Depends.” I scrub at my chin like I’m turning this offer over carefully, even though I already know I’m going to take it. There’s something different about Winter, and I’m not ready to say goodbye. There’s a draw I can’t explain.
With any other woman I would probably take one look and think too much work, but I’m eager to get to know her better. To figure out what’s underneath that icy exterior. “Are we drinking more wine?”
Maybe I just feel bad for her, and I’m being extra nice, in the spirit of Christmas or whatever. But I’m drawn to her, and not just because she’s beautiful.
“No. I think it’s more of a tequila kind of night,” she replies, surprising me as I start toward her, inexplicably pulled closer.
“Whatever you want,” I say as I come near enough to reach out and touch her cheek. Would she flinch? Or lean into it? I don’t get a chance to find out because she turns away toward the hotel lobby.
And this time I don’t hesitate to touch her. I press my hand against the small of her back as I usher her through the front door and toward the bar.
Tequila is not my friend.
But for this girl, I’ll make an exception.